An ESPN Writer Gets Religion…

Some of us have dared to ponder long enough whether Shohei Ohtani's two-way viability was all that viable in the long-term. Well, now. At least one ESPN writer has asked and answered the same question. Sort of.

"Like [Babe] Ruth in the late 1910s, Ohtani might be getting so good with the bat it no longer makes sense to deal with the complications of a two-way act," wrote Bradford Doolittle last week.

Would Ohtani be open to giving up pitching at some point if the Dodgers ask? It's the 21st-century version of the Babe Ruth Problem that confronted the Red Sox long ago. But if the team ever does make that request, it will be because a franchise that employs a small army of analysts has untangled some very complicated math around the decision.

Thanks to his recovery from a second Tommy John surgery performed late last year, Ohtani on the mound is a non-starter this year. Ohtani purely at the plate, as the Dodgers' designated hitter, is something else entirely. Emphasis on something else: As of Sunday morning, he led the National League with a .628 slugging percentage, a 1.034, a 190 OPS+, and the entire Show with 130 total bases.

Shall we look at Ohtani's 2024 thus far according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric? (Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances.) Ohtani's RBA as of Sunday morning was .668.

WARriors may care to note that Ohtani's 3.1 through Sunday morning was behind only his Dodgers teammate Mookie Betts (3.7) and a shade ahead of the Cubs' import pitching star Shota Imanaga. (3.0. Imanaga is knocking the league on its can on the mound: he leads the NL with a 2.21 fielding-independent pitching rate [FIP] and leads the entire Show with an absolutely extraterrestrial 497 ERA+ so far this year, not to mention his 0.84 ERA.)

Doolittle runs down the prospects of Ohtani coming off the mound to stay and reasons why the Dodgers might want to make the move: his sick seasonal stats to date, his improved overall batting metrics, his increase in line drive hitting, even career high baserunning figures.

But it takes Doolittle a good while before he notes the injury that keeps Ohtani at the plate alone this year. And he almost brushes it to one side in order to address what he calls "the biggest consideration of all." That would be, as he sees it:

To what extent is Ohtani's current leap at the plate a byproduct of not having to worry about pitching? And how much better might he be doing, if that were at all possible, if he didn't have to worry about rehabbing another pitching injury? Could his baserunning value be maintained or enhanced if he didn't have to consider mound work?

A lot of people, myself included, wondered just how viable Ohtani's two-way baseball life would prove in the long term. Enough of us who did so nearly had our heads handed to us. Three years ago, it happened to Ahead of the Curve author Brian Kenny, co-hosting MLB Now (MLB Network), courtesy of New York Post writer Joel Sherman, who co-hosted that day.

Kenny suggested the Angels should think of limiting Ohtani to one or the other full-time role, pitcher or designated hitter/occasional outfielder. Sherman demanded to know why. Kenny replied, "One could damage the other." Oops. "So," Sherman rejoined, "you would like one of the fifteen to twenty best starting pitchers in baseball to stop starting because you're worried about something that could happen?"

Well, something that could have happened, did happen.

It's kept Ohtani off the mound since last August, but that's all, folks. That's not wonderful news for the rest of the league's pitchers, but it's certainly wonderful news for a Dodger team sitting seven games up in the National League West while leading the entire Show in team total bases and team OPS and the NL in home runs, team slugging, and team batting bases on balls.

Once upon a time, Babe Ruth himself, the only other man to play even one season (1919) as both a starting pitcher and full-time (130 games) slugger/outfielder, thought the idea of continuing in that tandem role wasn't too realistic even for him.

"I don't think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year," said Ruth in 1918, when he started 20 games for the Red Sox and played part-time (95 games) as a slugging outfielder. "I can do it this season all right, and not feel it, for I am young and strong and don't mind the work. But I wouldn't guarantee to do it for many seasons."

Ruth had to be dragged kicking and screaming somewhat into the idea that his number-one value was and would be at the plate. But once he joined the Yankees he never again tried to be a pitcher, except for five games spread between 1920-21, 1930, and 1933. From 1920 through 1934, of course, you could say (with apologies to Casey Stengel) that Ruth was rather splendid in his line of full-time outfield work. Even if he was far more valuable at the plate (transdimensional in his time) than in the outfield (roughly league average).

It wouldn't be untoward if the Dodgers began to think Ohtani might want to ponder Ruth's 1918 remarks and take them seriously for the sake of his longer term baseball health. He already proved he could do the two-way job at a breathtaking level, not to mention doing it that way longer than Ruth actually did.

If the Dodgers are worried about the box office, they shouldn't. Ohtani at the plate is still more than enough gate attraction. (He's being cautious for the time being with a hamstring bruise incurred on a pickoff throw last week.) He's liable to stay that way for a good number of years further. One way to ensure that as well as his real value in a pennant race just might be to keep him off the mound from now on.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site